Archive for April 9th, 2009

The Learning Room

They live in a two-bedroom trailer. All nine of them, including five children, eight and under. Only one adult works. Not because the others aren’t willing but because, well, there is no work.

“All my friends say the same thing,” she says. “No one can find any work.”

Usually they work in the fields. But right now there isn’t any field work to be done. So they clean. They babysit.

“We dig through the trash looking for bottles,” she says, laughing.

I lived in a trailer long ago.

“Is it a doublewide?” I asked.

“No,’ she says. “Single.”

“Oh, very crowded.”

“Yes,” she says.

I remember. Frank on the couch. Grandaddy in the front bedroom. Mary Sue and the baby in the bed with me. Sister Tater in bed with Mama. But those were brief times. Usually if Mary Sue was there, Grandaddy was someplace else. Still, the walls were thin, the beds were crowded, the noise constant, the sleep inconsistent, and bathroom privacy? Forget it.

The bathroom was the town hall meeting place. The washer and dryer were pushed up in the corner behind the door, which one could never open fully and which was hardly ever shut for any reason. Most people have memories of family times in the family room, at the lake, or gathered around the holiday table. My memories of family moments are set in caulking. I remember hanging in the bathroom, watching Mama expertly apply her makeup, or scooching by somebody so I could take a shower. The bathroom is where all our big family discussions took place.  I was in that bathroom one afternoon with a girlfriend from elementary school when Mama over heard me tell my friend that I didn’t have a daddy.

She later called me on that.

“You have a daddy,” she said.”Don’t be telling people you don’t have a daddy.”

I must admit that at my young age the finer points of parenthood weren’t all that clear to me. Mama must have been mortified thinking I was going around the school telling people I didn’t have a daddy.

“It doesn’t seem like I have one,” I said. “He ain’t around. What am I supposed to tell people when they ask?”

“Tell them he’s deceased,” she said.

That was the first time I ever heard that word.

I learned some big words in that bathroom, some of which I wouldn’t understand until much later in life.

I learned some big lessons in that bathroom, too, like how babies are made and how drinking too much might make a person forget their loss momentarily but it will also make them sicker than a yard dog with scours. I learned that makeup has to be applied on the neck as well as the face otherwise you’re left with a tanned face and white neck. Not at all an attractive look. I learned that puppies love the bathroom trash more than any other trash in the house. And not to walk around barefoot when Mama is cleaning the heating vents or you might lose a toe when you stumble into the empty hole in the floor.  I learned to not throw Mama’s white nylons in the dryer but to hang them over the shower door. And I learned that lemon juice really will lighten a girl’s hair when applied on a sunny day, but if you use peroxide and rinse it off too soon your hair will either be green or orange.

These are important things for a girl to know.

And to remember.

Even when she grows up and has a bathroom all to herself in her big house filled with photos of a noisy family long gone. Her only company a dog that sheds too much.

It’s hard sometimes to know how to help folks. I fixed her a simple lunch. A spinach salad.

“Very good,” she says. “We only eat tamales. Tamales. Tamales. No salad.”

It took me five minutes to make. She ate every last cranberry, every morsel of feta cheese.

When we were kids living in a trailer an afternoon snack would be a piece of Miss Sunshine white bread, covered in fake butter and sprinkled with sugar. Sister Tater sometimes made hers with just mayo. I thought that was gross. A pot of pinto beans and a hunk of cornbread was our supper. I’d never heard of tamales. I didn’t know anyone who ate Mexican food except people who lived in Mexico.

I paid her for working today and asked if she wanted to come back next week. I took the ham out of the freezer and wrapped it up and gave it to her. I didn’t know until later it had been a gift to Tim from his parents.  I gave away my husband’s Christmas present. I’m all the time giving away Tim’s stuff. I bet he’s glad somedays that I’m not around to give his best stuff away.

My daugther called this afternoon, told me about the young mother who had the brain bleed and the young father with lung cancer. I told her about the young mother who lives in the trailer with nine people and only one of them working.

It’s not always possible to fix people’s problems, but it does matter that we care for each other as best we know how. Hold the trash can for the person puking. Take a washcloth to their forehead. Put the fevered soul to bed. Pray for the grieving parents or young children. Give away your husband’s Christmas present if necessary. Offer a kind word to a parched soul.

And remember that unless we sit still and pay attention we might miss out on some of life’s most important lessons. Even when that sitting happens to take place on the toliet lid.

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